The first transcontinental railroad, first transcontinental automobile highway (the Lincoln Highway), the Oregon Trail, the California and Mormon Trails and the Pony Express riders all made their way through Western Nebraska. Why? The routes originally followed the North Platte River through the prairies, sand hills and grasslands of Nebraska en route to the new lands to the West, skirting the higher mountains of the Rockies to the South.
That is the very reason I chose Western Nebraska for a motorcycle tour. I wanted to experience the trails of the early settlers who were seeking a way westward, and experience the many sights along with the roads.
North Platte, Nebraska, seemed like a logical place to start my ride because this town is near the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers, and Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard is located here. It is the largest railroad classification yard in the world, where railroad cars are separated, transferred and added to make trains, covering 2,850 acres and reaching a total length of eight miles. In addition to the eight-story Golden Spike Tower from which visitors can observe the yard and watch the non-stop action, there’s also a visitor’s center with railroading displays.
North Platte, I discovered, is also the site of Buffalo Bill Cody’s ranch. Called Scout’s Rest, it sits on 25 acres of its original 4,000. Now it is a historical park consisting of his Victorian home and barn with his showman memorabilia. Buffalo Bill led a colorful life. He was at times a scout for the army, a Pony Express rider, a buffalo hunter, and, of course, a Wild West showman. His home in North Platte was built for rest and relaxation and because it was near the railroad for transporting his horses and other show material.
Interstate 80 generally follows the same path along the South Platte River, but I wanted to take U.S. Route 30 to Ogallala and pick up U.S. Route 26. These roads follow the river and the historic trails more closely. U.S. 30, or the original Lincoln Highway, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. U.S. 30 is a four-lane easy riding route. The farther west I went, the hillier the road became. My first thought of the Nebraska terrain was flat and more flat. But those notions were dashed as I reached the western extreme of the state.
Ogallala first gained fame as the terminus for cattle drives that traveled from Texas to the Union Pacific railhead located here, and is the frontier town made notable in the Larry McMurtry book and TV mini-series Lonesome Dove. While in Ogallala, I stopped at a restored section of the old town called Front Street and ate at the Front Street Steakhouse & Crystal Palace Saloon. There’s also a museum, and during the summer months a stage show provides entertainment.
In Ogallala I picked up U.S. Route 26 and headed north. U.S. 26 is a two-lane road, rough in spots, but rideable, and the terrain changes from mostly flat to hilly. This route is part of two scenic routes, the Lincoln Highway and the Western Trails Scenic and Historic Byways. U.S. 26 passes by Lake McConaughy, the largest recreational lake in Nebraska, and Ash Hollow State Historic Park. At Ash Hollow and Windlass Hill, wagon tracks from the original Oregon Trail are still visible. It requires a short but steep hike on a paved path.
Near Bridgeport, Nebraska, the terrain changes. As I neared the Nebraska-Wyoming border, buttes and landforms appeared. Some of the most significant of those landforms are Chimney Rock, Castle and Jailhouse Rocks near Bridgeport, and Scotts Bluff National Monument near Scottsbluff. These were significant landmarks for the wagon trains heading westward, and for me as well. I could see them in the distance, and realized how important they were to the slow-moving wagon trains.
I kept on U.S. 26, which made a dogleg at Chimney Rock, the most recognized feature on the Oregon and California Trails. It is a sandstone rock formation that rises 300 feet over the North Platte Valley. The two-lane road crosses the North Platte River, the railroad and the original route of the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails before it heads westward again for Scottsbluff. Incidently, the town “Scottsbluff” is written on maps as one word—a typo when the town was chartered, as it was intended to be two words.
The smaller town of Gering was founded south of the North Platte River and is the sister city of Scottsbluff. The two cities have since grown together to form the seventh largest urban area in Nebraska. Just outside of town along U.S. 26 is the Scotts Bluff National Monument, an impressive geologic land feature that rises to 4,659 feet above sea level, or 800 feet above the North Platte River. The Summit Road at Scotts Bluff National Monument is thought to be the oldest existing concrete road in Nebraska. The road takes visitors to the top of the bluff through three tunnels for a spectacular view of the valley. I rode the Summit Road with friends from the sister cities and could see Scottsbluff and Gering from above the flatter land below. What a ride!
From Scottsbluff, I wanted to ride another of Nebraska’s scenic routes, the Gold Rush Byway. I backtracked to Bridgeport and picked up U.S. Route 385 north (another two-lane), which follows the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway to Alliance. In Alliance, I saw a sign for Carhenge, and diverted off my route on Highway 87 north from town and arrived at the replica of Stonehenge, with 38 automobiles placed to assume the same proportions and positions as England’s original.
Back in Alliance, I picked up U.S. 385 again and headed northward. At State Route 2, I veered northwest to follow the BNSF line and took a shortcut to Crawford and Fort Robinson State Park, where I would spend another couple days. Fort Robinson, an active military post from 1874 until 1947, was established to protect the Red Cloud Agency, which assisted the Indians of the area. The current fort sits on 22,000 acres with some of the original buildings and a multitude of activities. There are campgrounds and a park lodge with a restaurant that was formerly the enlisted men’s barracks. I parked my bike and stayed at one of the converted officers’ quarters.
Fort Robinson was one of the many highlights of my ride through Western Nebraska’s history and landmarks. If I had it to do over, I would follow the same route, but maybe pause more often and reflect on this route of the early settlers.